The Passion--Mini-Essay III
I was hoping to need only one Mini-Essay to comment on Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," but I guess I need three. I suggested in the preceding essay that one of Gibson's inadequacies was his failure to portray the mental dimension of Jesus' suffering, especially the possible reactions to being betrayed. I discussed vengeance as one natural way that people react to betrayal by a trusted friend.
A second possible reaction would be to give up all desire to live. I am not sure if all betrayed people have an immediate desire to retaliate with vengeance, as I suggested in Mini-Essay II; it may be that some betrayed people become so enervated, so weakened by the betrayal that they simply give up the will to live. The point is subtle, and needs to be explored through reflecting on common human experience as well as a literary allusion.
When one has entrusted the self to another, the other becomes not simply a sharer in your thoughts, dreams, fears and weaknesses, but a possessor of those as well. My mind remains my own, but if I have communicated the deep flow of my thoughts to a trusted and concerned friend, she may take those thoughts in her own direction, give them back to me and thereby contribute to the development of my own mind and heart. She has alchemically shaped my thought into a more precious one; she has burnished the gold I gave her so that its shine is even more lustrous. She has become a partaker and co-owner of my mind and heart.
If that person then betrays me, by using the thoughts against me in some way, it is as if I have not lost just a friend, but I have lost my thoughts, my mind, my heart. The one who completed my thoughts now confounds and corrupts them. The heart sinks. It plummets. Like a high-flying bird brought low by the hunter's pellet, my soaring heart dives, lifeless, to the ground.
I never realized how dramatically poignant and enfeebling betrayal can be until I read and reread the last words of Julius Caesar as depicted in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I devote many mini-essays to that play on my Shakespeare page. Caesar's last words appear early in the play (Act 3, Scene 1) when he is set upon from all sides by the conspirators. They stab him unmercifully in front of the statute of Pompey, an earlier rival he bested four years previously, but before he falls he recognizes that his intimate friend Brutus also stabs him. His reaction is to utter the only Latin words in the play, "Et tu Brute?" (3.1.77), and immediately say the cryptic, "Then fall Caesar!" He then dies.
"Then fall Caesar" are three words capturing the total sum of psychic and physical torment on Caesar upon his realization of betrayal by Brutus. Some classical accounts even have Brutus being Caesar's illegitimate son, though Shakespeare doesn't endorse that view in his play. Nevertheless, Brutus was, in Antony's words, "Caesar's angel (3.2.181)." When Caesar saw this intimate friend stab him, he "lapsed" back into Latin, the language that potentially takes the actor out of being an actor, and then dies. The thought is that if Brutus has abandoned me, and turned against me, no reason or will to live yet exists. Up until this time in the play Caesar is an unattractive, though revered, person. When Caesar utters these three words, his vulnerable humanity is present for all to see. Betrayal brings with it a collapse of all the inner resources to live.
I turned to Shakespeare to exposit this point because the Gospel writers do not either discuss or suggest whether Jesus suffered a comparable interior collapse. Perhaps the shedding of sweat as great drops of blood in the Garden is reflective of that. Indeed, Gibson effectively portrays aspects of mental torment in the Garden, but he doesn't apparently connect them with the feeling of betrayal. Jesus' "Seven Last Words" on the cross are often treated as windows into his inner spirit, but most preachers who speak on those subjects spiritualize the words: as if the human drama in the Seven Last Words is the struggle to redeem the world. In fact, psychologically speaking, the human drama of the last days of Jesus' life is his coming to grips with the debilitating consequences of betrayal. It is only in this context that one can even ask a question which I do not feel qualified at this time to answer, "What is the mechanism that allows forgiveness to emerge from betrayal?"
In sum, Gibson would have been well served by asking and trying to answer the questions: "How does betrayal feel? How does it taste? What music is appropriate to express it? What is betrayal's color? What does the face look like that has been betrayed? How can betrayal be transmuted into forgiveness? Is that possible?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long